African Walking Stick
The cushions on the couch shot plumes of dust into the air every time we rolled. The moon lit the dust up until it disappeared in the brighter glow of the television. I had it on mute. A brown bear had a tracker clipped to its ear like a chip clip. Suzanne’s bra was giving me fits until she offered to help unhook it. Her chest and I both let out a sigh of relief when I noticed the man standing outside the screen door.
The door was white painted metal. Suzanne threw on the old t-shirt she found by the side of the couch and ran into the bedroom. I followed her and watched as she wrapped herself back up into a cocoon of dirty sheets. I wanted to get to know her better. Between the bangs came the lulling sound of crickets in my landlord’s rose garden. The deck light gleamed off the saliva on the side of the stranger’s mouth. He smacked a tattered plastic bag against the door.
The antique shop was really more of a souvenir junk store. At least, that’s what Mom said.
She said, “You can each pick out something. It has to be under ten dollars.”
Florida souvenir shops usually only contained Disney trinkets, plastic gators, and oranges. This place had Dooto hunting masks hammered to the walls. Art Deco lampshades lit the ceiling with hues of green and yellow. A wooden lion with an illustrious straw mane hung by wires over the register. Red and green striped flutes carved in Papa New Guinea were piled in a picnic basket by the storefront window.
My brother found the one cart of shitty snow globes. “Look Mom,” he said, “They’re made in Thailand.”
I smiled when he shook the globe filled with alligators. The snow settled on their smiling snouts. One of them wore sunglasses. I was secretly thrilled he went for junk over treasure. I took a little more time when I found what looked like a wooden baton sitting high on a shelf. I stood on my tiptoes, trying to reach it. The lady appeared behind the register, noticed me inspecting the item and smiled. Her hair was long and thinning. She held it close to her scalp with two dragonfly barrettes.
“Take a whiff,” she suggested.
I put the cane up to my nose. “Smells like burning leaves,” I said.
“African plum. Better known as ironwood. It’s an African walking stick. They say travellers walk from village to village with one of those to ward off predators.”
Mom looked at the lady. She raised an eyebrow, looked back at the stick and me. “Predators? It’s barely a foot and a half long.”
The lady shrugged her shoulders and smiled again. Her face was weathered by a lifetime of Florida sun.
“Can I have it Mom? Please?” I looked at the price tag dangling from a string and continued my plea, “It’s only $17.45.”
“We said ten dollars,” was her flat response.
“I won’t ask for anything else the whole trip.”
Mom took off her glasses and rubbed her right temple. “Alright, but that’s it. You’re done.”
Earlier in the day, we had make-your-own ice cream sundaes. Florida is filthy with them. Dad made us eat them in the car so he could sip on his beer. His foam cozy was shredded by the neck of the bottle to look like the fronds of a palms tree. The side said, “Miami Dreaming.”
I saved my gummi worms for last by carefully placing them on a napkin. The gummi worm had only just come onto the scene. Mom mocked horror as my brother slurped his up two at a time. Then he rushed in and gobbled all of his up with heaping spoonfuls of strawberry ice cream drowned in hot fudge and melted marshmallow.
He looked up from his empty cup and eyed my worms. “Can I have one?”
“You ate yours,” was my joyful response.
Dad stuffed his beer in the cup holder. Beads of sweat formed on the exposed glass neck. He looked back at me in the rear view. His beard reached up to the sides of his nostrils.
“Give him one,” he says.
“But dad,” I pleaded.
“Don’t make me say it again, goddammit.”
The man paced back and forth on the little shared porch. His eyes rattled around their sockets like lottery balls. He smiled and ground his teeth all at once. My neighbor was still out of town visiting his niece. We weren’t on the best of terms. His letter suggesting I get a “less noisy” bed for when I have “company” pissed me off.
The man tried to look through the perforated door when I turned on the hall light. He smacked the door.
“Let me in! Let me in! Shots fired, shots fired!”
He crouched. When he crouched, I crouched. Though there weren’t any gunshots to be heard. Suzanne called out from my bedroom. I yelled back, “Stay in there!”
She said, “Call 911!”
I wondered if I would know her long enough to say that about her or me.
I found the cordless by the couch. The man looked at me through the door. His five o’clock shadow was perfectly timed. He had the look of a Hollywood leading man from the 50’s. A better-looking Bogey. I started to feel sorry for him. Maybe a peanut butter sandwich and some chamomile would calm him. Food always settled me when I overdid any partying. I almost unlocked the door when he started up again.
“Tell them I need backup!” he begged.
The motel had a pile of discarded flamingos lying by the dumpster. The sun was hard on the parking lot. I poked a tar bubble by the curb. It was soft to the touch. My brother had my magnifying glass out and burned ants marching out of their mound. Dad’s shadow fell over us. He cleared his throat and told us to go back into our room to watch a cartoon. Mom and Dad’s room was attached to ours. He said not to knock on their door. Mom’s stomach wasn’t right.
The motel’s doors were all a burnt orange. Our room smelled like vitamins. The air conditioning was set at HIGH. The color TV was still on from earlier in the morning. Dad insisted we keep all the lights on (in their room too) he said he liked getting his money’s worth. It wasn’t his electric bill for once.
I cracked the adjoining door open just a tad. Mom had a damp towel on her forehead. We were able to see her from our room. The towel was mint green. Dad was next to her with three of the four pillows propped behind his back. A ball game murmured out from their television. He reached over her for a bottle. The liquid was clear like water but looked heavier as it sloshed back and forth. He slid his free hand under the sheets by Mom. I closed the door when he muttered to give Mom some peace and quiet.
My brother jumped on one of the twin beds. He held the snow globe and watched the flakes swirl each time he leapt from one bed to the other. A blizzard in a bubble. His next leap had him land on my bed in a seated position. He placed the snow globe on the nightstand next to the Gideon Bible I pulled out earlier. I had already checked the Bible for hollowed out sections that could hold a pistol or cash. Nothing but a faded receipt used as a bookmark. The receipt was for $2.39. A bag of cotton balls and tin of pomade. I glanced at the saved page. It read: Luke 10 25-37 The Parable of the Good Samaritan. Someone had written with a dull pencil in the margins: the priest and the Levite are assholes. Jesus saves.
While I was smiling at the swear word, my brother found the African walking stick in the cellophane bag on the one chair in our room. The chair had a red leather bottom surrounded by brass buttons and no arms.
He waved my stick and said, “Look at me!” Specks of dust swirled around him. Then he pretended to use it as a cane for an old man. The stick was too short.
I didn’t want him to scratch it up. “Give it back,” I said.
He wiggled the stick in my face. I grabbed the other end and pushed him to the bed with my free hand.
The man’s pupils shrank. He smeared his stubbly cheek against the perforated door.
“I called the police,” I said, “They’re on the way.”
He didn’t seem to like me calling his backup and yelled, “Shots fired!”
I ducked and crawled back to my bedroom. The carpet was rough on my knees. Suzanne was sandwiched between the bed and the window. She was still wrapped in a sheet. She nervously chewed on the string of the candy necklace we bought for dessert. I reached under the bed. My hand felt the bat from my best friend’s wedding. He gave all his groomsmen bats with little copper placards nailed to them. My inscription read: “a brother like no other.”
“What’re you doing?”
“Shh,” I replied. My tongue came out as I felt around for something better than the bat. “Looking. Ah. Got it.”
I sat against the bed with the walking stick lying on my lap.
“That?” she says. “What’ll that do?”
“I know what I’m doing.” I looked at her just as a cloud blew past the moon. Her eyes were still red from too much boxed wine.
She blinked at me and said, “I want to go home.” Her voice shook in the back of her throat. She lived in Los Feliz. Her apartment had the roof of a Smurf’s mushroom hut.
She crawled over and grabbed my arm. “Don’t leave me,” she said.
“I’ll be back. Just stay on the floor. Just in case.”
I tried to rub her cheek with the back of my hand. It was an awkward gesture that I wanted to be grand.
She slipped back to the carpet.
She winced and said, “Feels like sandpaper. Wall to wall carpeting and you don’t own a vacuum?”
“Sorry,” I muttered.
I got back onto my hands and knees when the man repeated, “Shots fired!”
I crawled back into the hallway. The walking stick tucked into the waistband of my boxer shorts at the small of my back.
It came loose and rolled out my short’s right leg. The man banged on the door. The metal shuddered.
“He’s got a weapon!” screamed the man.
I was not sure if he meant out there or in here.
Half the walking stick fell to the bed with my brother. The other half was a long sharp knife. Our eyes locked and widened. I lost my balance. Holding the wooden handle, I stumbled down onto the bed and my brother. The knife went straight through the mattress and into the box spring. It plunged into the bed with no effort, right by his neck. I tried to pull it out. It was caught on a box spring.
I jerked the blade back and forth. My brother’s ear lobe gets nicked. His hand shot to his ear. Blood dripped down his fingers. He cried.
I covered his mouth and said, “Shut it. Do you want mom or dad in here?”
His nose dribbled on my hand. He kicked the nightstand lamp onto the floor. Mom came in with her robe half on. Her medicine sloshed in a Styrofoam cup.
“What’s all the racket?” she asked.
She adjusted a bra strap back into place and said, “Your father and I were trying to rest. Get off him!” She smelled of rotten almonds.
I let go of his mouth. Air rushed into him and out as an ungodly wail. His ear dripped with wet red. Mom slapped me before I could explain. The slap spun me to the carpet. A Japanese beetle’s metallic shell rested by my nose.
The boop boop of a squad car came up from below the rose garden. The landlord’s roses had the saddest petals. They drooped with brown edges. Always craving more water than she gave. Sometimes, I’d empty the backwash of a water bottle on my way up or down the walkway. A pity watering.
The man leaned over my porch at the sound of the sirens. A voice filled the night. The police bullhorn asked the man to come down to the street. The man’s neck muscles tightened.
His eyes locked with mine. Our time together on this night in the universe was closing. He rushed at the metal door between us.
I pulled the blade from the walking stick. It stuck a little but came out with an extra tug. The blade was spotted with brown rust. The tip still had the faintest dot of dried blood from my brother’s ear. Back in New Hampshire, I imagined the scar on his lobe suddenly tingled.
The man pressed his neck against the perforated door. “Do it, do it, do it,” he said calmly.
Holding it after all this time, I remembered how easily it sank into the motel mattress, not even feeling it progress to the box spring. Would it be the same feeling? Would I feel nothing until it hit his spine?
Mom pulled us back into the junk shop. The door’s electric ring needed a tune up. Mom shoved me into the counter. The same lady looked back at us. She was in the middle of an egg salad sandwich.
“No returns. Store policy,” she said dryly.
I was relieved until Mom told our story. She pulled the blade out from its sheath and slapped it onto the counter. A glop of egg salad fell from the sandwich and onto the paper plate. A housefly landed for a brief feast.
“I’m so sorry,” the counter lady picked up the blade by the handle and continued, “We had no idea. Though that does make more sense now.”
Mom’s gray hairs twirled around her head at this remark. “Make sense?” she barked.
The woman put the blade back into its sheath and handled the stick. She nodded and said, “Supposed to protect a traveler from lions, hyenas, thieves…now I see. Not just a stick.”
“Certainly not,” huffed Mom. She rummaged through her cloth purse and found a Pall Mall. She lit it without asking.
The woman looked over our heads at the no smoking sign. She opened her mouth and closed it again. Reforming her thoughts, she said, “I’m sorry, you want an exchange or store credit?”
Mom looked down at me. My brother found another snow globe with some penguins lounging on a beach. His earlobe was layered in white bandaging. The bandages were already gray from his always-dirty hands.
Mom grabbed the stick from the woman. She handed it back to me. Her knees cracked as she crouched to be eye level with me.
“You can keep this, you never pull that blade out again. We’ll stow it high up in your closet. Think I’d like to see the look on you Aunt Joanne’s face when we pull that out on Halloween. She’ll absolutely shit.”
I smiled and nodded.
Mom turned back to the lady and said, “Keeping it as a conversation piece. Next time, put a warning label on it or something. You should know what you’re selling.”
Down on the street, the man was strapped to a gurney. The paramedic shined a light in his eyes. He writhed. I could hear the gurney clang against the side of the ambulance from up on the deck.
A cop and his pad took down my statement.
“Did you see a weapon?” asked the cop. “If he actually threatened you, you can add to the charges.”
The man lurched on the gurney. He yelled, “He’s got a machete! He tried to gut me! Said he’d clean me like a fish. He took it, took it, took it. Said he’d do to me what he did to the girl in back.”
I stared at the cop, looking for an answer. The cop shook his head. The lines in his forehead were cut with dark grease. The yellow light of a streetlight pulsed and let out a steady buzz.
The cop’s jaw muscles tightened when he said, “Who knows, could have been pcp, meth or even bath salts. Did you provoke him?”
“Huh?” I wanted to get back inside. The shirt I threw on barely covered my stomach.
“You know that’s expensive,” the cop nodded at my apartment.
“What is?” I asked.
“Leaving all your lights on like that.”
“Power and water included,” was my retort. I stood on my tiptoes and came back down. I was tall enough now not to need anyone’s attention.
Down below the rose garden, the paramedics lifted the man into the back of the ambulance. He finally stopped struggling against his restraints.
About the Author: Adam Rose lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two children. His fiction has been published in journals such as Four Ties Literary Review, The Milo Review, The Casserole, Storychord, and others. He has recently finished work on a novel and an all ages comic book mini series.